||Issue Date: 11 / 2012
Bauhaus: The Experiment That Changed The World of Design
The idea wasn’t new. There had been arts and craft movements in England, Russia and in the United States long before the Bauhaus came into existence.
Alfred Arndt, German, 1898-1976;
at Bauhaus 1921-32. Meister
Doppelhäuser, von unten gesehen
(Masters' double houses, seen
from below). Color scheme for
the exteriors, 1926, Ink and
tempera on paper, 29 15/16 x 22
1/16" (76 x 56 cm). Bauhaus -
But never had this revolutionary approach to the creation of modern innovative design in architecture, interiors, furniture and the redesign of everyday objects been advanced with such vehemence.
The literal translation of Bauhaus is “house-building.” The Bauhaus refers both to a school and a philosophy of design and production. Like other movements during this time period, there was an emphasis on the beauty of natural materials verses extravagant decoration. And there was a goal of bringing this beauty to the masses.
Ironically, the Bauhaus movement was born and prospered in an unlikely place at an unlikely time - a post-World War I Germany, defeated and essentially bankrupt in the years 1919-1933.
The founder of the Bauhaus was an obscure architect, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) who in 1919 articulated his ideas in a stirring manifesto. “Art,” he stated, “cannot be created without the co-operation of craftsmen, architects, painters and sculptors. Art cannot be created in a vacuum. It requires a sound grounding in materials and methods. A craft can certainly be learned.” “Let us then,” he continued, “create a guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists!” “The artist is no more than an exalted craftsman.” Thus, the Bauhaus elevated the status of craftsman, putting him on equal footing with the designer, previously considered to have a more prestigious career.
The Bauhaus program was twofold: 1) to teach the very basic principles of art production, essentially craft and materials and their application; and 2) to establish an entirely new basis for the creation of design in architecture as well as in the development of ordinary objects in daily use such as furniture, cutlery, tableware, lighting fixtures, ceramics and textiles.
This ambitious program required a state sponsor to fund the operation. Fortunately the German state of Saxony agreed to finance a school. The location selected, Weimar, proved ideal. The town was associated with two of the foremost figures of German literature, Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
Ever the idealist, Gropius also articulated the model of the Bauhaus student. There was to be no discrimination on the basis of sex, age or social origin. But he did not escape the prejudices of his era altogether. Following their basic or preliminary course, women did not find a welcome in the architectural arena. Instead there was a sexist preference for women to be guided into the study of certain crafts, typically weaving, pottery, and bookbinding.
In the 14 years of the Bauhaus some 1250 students were recruited, and after spending a period of 3 years at the institution received their Weimar diplomas. The teacher corps featured some of the leading figures of the day in the graphic and building arts, among them the painters Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Oscar Schlemmer, Lyonel Feininger and the architects Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Every student irrespective of age and educational background had to take the preliminary or basic six months course. Its components were a basic study of materials and their application in problem solving. Painting was also one of the requirements. The studies were led both by a craftsman teacher and by an artist active in the field.
But for Bauhaus students, the rigorous program wasn’t all grind. There were activities such as masked balls, evenings of music, and ballet performances. (These were “the rock concerts” of Europe in the early part of the 20th century.)
The Bauhaus Programs
After completing the preliminary course students could select the workshop most to their liking and talents.
The Furniture Workshop. Here Marcel Breuer was in charge. Among other achievements, this workshop developed the first tubular chair. The popularity of the “Breuer Chair” has continued to increase with the years. Practicality and usefulness as well as beauty, and quality workmanship and materials were the guideposts here, exemplified by the development of the nested tables, another Bauhaus product that remains popular today.
The Weaving and Textiles Workshop. Fresh colors and decorative designs inspired rug making and hangings of all kinds in these classes. But for the first time students were concerned not just with textile design or topics such as the theoretical aspects of weaving, but rather with all of weaving’s practical applications and textile usage. The ultimate goal was for graduating students to make their textiles available to a wide audience. To that end, they learned work methods for mass production of their work, and even such “non-creative” skills as careful cost analysis.
Typography Workshop. While no original typefaces can be ascribed to the Bauhaus, its students experimented with existing forms, developing unique poster lettering and innovative advertising display and format. The Bauhaus type shop avoided the awkward gothic lettering still prevalent in the early 20th century, instead promoting roman and sans serif (no “little feet” at the bottom of each letter) typefaces throughout its 14-year history. Understandably, Bauhaus furniture and textiles would be sought-after collectors’ items, but even the pamphlets and catalogs produced by the Bauhaus type shop are in demand today.
Stage Design. Theater-related design was one of the Bauhaus’s prime creative areas, not surprising given that Weimar Germany was one of the pioneers of creative staging. And it was the era of the great European playwrights Bertold Brecht, Franz Wedekind and their colleagues. The innovative designs and fantastic figures that the Bauhaus created, including stage sets for the ballet, enhanced the audience’s theater experience. Their experimental approach, especially in lighting of stage productions, resulted in revolutionary and lasting changes in the theater.
Pottery and Ceramic Workshops. Here the creative aspects of the Bauhaus really shone. Like its approach to textiles and furniture, the Bauhaus demanded excellence in design and its careful translation to mass production, creating high quality pottery at a reasonable price. Today Bauhaus pottery and even imitations are highly prized, favorites of interior decorators and design experts. Museums internationally continue to display these materials. Currently the Milwaukee Art Museum has a special exhibit by one Bauhaus graduate: ceramicist Grete Marks. Her tableware exemplifies the best from the Bauhaus: innovation, honesty and simplicity of design, even a touch of humor, and mass produced so many could enjoy it in their own homes.
Peter Keler, German, 1898-1982;
at Bauhaus 1921-25.
Cradle. 1922, Wood,
colored lacquer, rope work,
circular supports, 36 1/8" (91.7
cm) diam., width: 38 9/16" (98
cm). Klassik Stiftung Weimar,
Bauhaus - Museum
Achievements in Architecture
Architecture was the cornerstone of the Bauhaus instruction, and some would argue, its most important contribution to the world of design. The Bauhaus was responsible for developing the structures which we now call “The International Style.” Its key characteristics were:
- A square or rectangular footprint and square or rectangular form throughout.
- Windows forming a perfect grid arrangement.
And there was one other defining element: No ornamentation of any kind on the outside of the building. This made for a stark silhouette.
The Bauhaus was the pioneer in the development of The International Style under Gropius and his successor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but it had influential followers throughout the western world. Among these were the famous architects Charles Le Corbusier in France and Switzerland, and Philip Johnson in the United States.
Hard Times for Bauhaus
From its very inception the Bauhaus had money problems. The state of Saxony found it hard to meet the most basic needs of the school. In 1925 the city of Dessau in the German Anhalt region restructured the Bauhaus and provided funding. But devastating inflation and the darkening of the horizon with the Nazis looming, required yet another move in 1932. Finally a refuge was found in Berlin. With the Nazi takeover in 1933 the Bauhaus was doomed.
The Nazis hated the stark modernization, the no-nonsense lines of Bauhaus design and the buildings that had come into being. “It was not German enough,” the government bosses thought. They could not tolerate the elimination of the arabesques of Gothic lettering and design, the sentimental ornamentation of all objects. In mid-1933 van der Rohe had a meeting with the Gestapo, and while it was reluctantly agreed to keep the school going, van der Rohe “saw the writing on the wall.” He knew the future for the Bauhaus in Germany was hopeless and he closed it.
Bauhaus in America
It was inevitable that many of the displaced artists of the Bauhaus would come to settle in America. For example Josef Albers taught art, the graphic arts and painted murals in North Carolina. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer went on to teach at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Mies Van der Rohe set up the department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. There he exerted an influence that helped establish that city as one of the most innovative and advanced architecturally in the country. Many Chicago buildings are in the International Style. In New York the Seagram Building, the United Nations Secretariat, and Lever House are just a few examples of International Bauhaus-style structures. The style is prominent in other North American cities, as well, indeed worldwide.
The Bauhaus Impact
It’s hard to estimate in how many ways the visual aspect of contemporary life was influenced and structured by the adventurous Bauhaus artists and designers. We work in their buildings, enjoy everyday objects created in Bauhaus style, continue to use Bauhaus-designed furniture, and see graphic evidence of the Bauhaus in print materials as diverse as movie posters, advertisements, and special edition collectible books. Clearly, the Bauhaus influence will be around for decades to come.
Stern, a poet and writer on the arts, has written more than 50
articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online
since 2004. His new book is Touchstones.